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Director reveals secret to making war films

Update: November, 08/2015 - 02:16

(The Returnee) won audiences' hearts quickly when it premiered, dealing a blow to the perception that people don't enjoy movies about war. Director Dang Thai Huyen talks with Minh Thu about her success.

Nguoi Tro Ve

Director Dang Thai Huyen was born in 1980. Currently she works for the Department of the People's Army Cinematography. Before Nguoi Tro Ve, her debut, Muoi Ba Ben Nuoc (Thirteen Wharves), which deals with the consequence of the war among the Vietnamese, won the Golden Lotus for best video film, best director, best leading actor and actress, apart from best supporting actor, and best cameraman, at the 2009 Viet Nam Film Festival.

Inner Sanctum: You are a young director who has not spent your life in a war. What were you thinking when you made the film?

Having a chance to direct the film was my big honour and dream. I have always wanted to make a war film to pay tribute to the previous generation, particularly the fallen soldiers. I was determined to make it with success.

At first, I was under pressure that a war film does not sound interesting and my film may not attract many viewers. But when it was screened, I witnessed the audience stand up, applaud, smile and cry with the characters. I shed tears of happiness.

I am inexperienced in making a film featuring post-war problems, but I was confident because I received great support from the department's leader and my staff. My productions are serious works with lessons for the audience. I always try my best to make them lively.

Inner Sanctum: Among many stories about the war, why did you choose Nguoi Ve Ben Song Chau (Returning to Chau River Wharf), a story by Suong Nguyet Minh, to adapt it to the film Nguoi Tro Ve (The Returnee)?

I love reading and have read a lot. But I find Minh's stories most interesting. I understand and sympathise with female characters in his stories where I see myself and many other women I met. They have secretly suffered sorrow and pain but still hide the strength and determination in their minds.

Minh's stories are humane, emotional and close to the reality. When I read his stories, images of the characters appeared in my mind as if there was a film in my imagination.

May, the main character in the film of Nguoi Tro Ve, came back home a year after her family was notified that she was dead in the war. Interestingly, the day she came back was also her lover's wedding day. The man, San, decided to get married as he believed that May had passed away.

She suffers great misery but she is not weak. She sacrifices and lives for others. She controls her own faith and that is why she always makes a right decision at important moments. For example, she helps San's wife deliver and saves the baby, overlooking the selfishness and hurt.

Inner Sanctum: In your opinion, what makes the film so successful?

The film was made on 35mm celluloid film, no special effects, no modern digital devices. I think it won people's hearts due to its sincere story and its characters.

I just want to tell a simple story, without any exaggeration. Each character in the film has his/her own story and innermost feelings. It's like the Chau River, which seems to be serene but actually hides underwater currents.

Inner Sanctum: Would you share some memories during the time you made the film?

The film was made during the coldest days of winter in the northern region. Actress La Thanh Huyen (May) fainted after shooting a scene in the river. Seventy per cent of the film crew was cold and sick.

Inner Sanctum: Do you have any advice for other young directors who want to make war films?

It is necessary to prepare intensively for the film in the beginning. With a good plan, the film can be made effectively. With war films, the filmmakers should consult military advisers to have beautiful shots which are truthful to history.

I have not experienced wartime. So I have to read the screenplay carefully and meet the writers to understand their ideas and what they mean. Through the meetings, they share with me what exactly they think and what message they want to send. Meanwhile, I also tell them my ideas and queries.

I directed a film about a heroic village in the central province of Ha Tinh, where all villagers volunteered to dismantle their houses to build road for military cars to go to battle. I spent one week living with the locals, listen to their stories and trying to understand their thoughts. I think it is an important part of making a film.

When I started making The Returnee, I met writer Minh and showed him what I intended to do. "Thank you," he said simply after listening to me. I realised that he agreed with me.

Inner Sanctum: Being a female director, you must work hard to balance the work and family?

Yes, indeed. I have to be absent from home for months. Without my family and especially my husband's sympathy and support, I could not have completed the task.

When I finish a film, I just want to come home as soon as possible. Being with family brings me peace, warmth and gives me the confidence to tackle my next projects.

For me, family is the top priority. I learn how to arrange my work, decide, select and refuse to save time for my family. — VNS

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